Friday, September 29, 2006

Save Yourself: Get to the dentist

Truth be told, I hate going to the dentist. It’s not that I hate my dentist. Nothing could be further from the truth. He’s a great guy. In fact, the prospect of having to replace him sends shudders up and down my spine because I’ve been his patient for the last 17 years.

He knows my mouth inside and out. And prior to seeing me, he worked on my dad, so know he’s warned me – on more occasions than I can remember – that since my dad’s mouth is rotten, of the need to be extra diligent at brushing my teeth.

Every time I visit my dentist I think we’re playing some version of the TV reality shows Survivor or The Weakest Link. Which tooth will be voted out of my mouth this time or get drilled down to nothing so it can be capped – or worse? Stay tuned.

My bad luck with the dentist started years ago, when I was about 10 years old. One of my two front teeth wouldn’t come down from the gums. So it was off to the oral surgeon, my dentist said, to figure out was going on. This was back in the early ‘70s, the day and age when the specialists in the trade, not your average, run-of-the-mill, dentist, used x-rays.

They revealed a cyst and within a few days, at a hospital, it was removed. Within a week after the surgery, I finally had my two front teeth.

But that’s not the end of it. I also suffered through about 10 years of braces. Since this was the dark ages of dentistry, my mouth appeared to be one, big metal track. The only thing missing were the trains.

If I still had those braces on today, I’d never be able to fly. In fact, it’s my guess that the airport’s metal detector would have to be replaced after sensing the amount of steel in my mouth.

So, as a result of all that childhood fun, I’ve been pretty diligent over the years – at least since graduating from college – about taking care of my teeth. I brush three or four times a day, rubber tip my gums, floss, etc.,etc.

My wife once observed that it takes about 30 minutes to get my teeth ready for bed.

During one visit to my dentist, I got so pissed off upon hearing the news about one more costly, in-depth procedure that needed to be done that I through up my hands up in frustration and said, “Gerry, I just want to know, how many kids have I put through college?”

“I don’t know. But you bought a few cars,” he replied.

I admired the come back.

My luck at the dentist is so bad that I had two root canals in three months earlier this year. The dentist who performs these root canals, not the guy I usually see, is just like my regular dentist: An all-round excellent practitioner of the trade with a sense of humor.

As he was about to start my second root canal, I said while these hook-ups were a blast, really, I couldn’t keep this up, financially, much longer. So I asked him, what’s the best way to avoid these meetings.

The good news, he reported, was that I was running out of teeth. Thank God for that, I replied.

He then went on to inform me that most root canals happen in molars, the teeth that are farthest back in the jaw. They’re prone to cavities and, if they’ve been drilled and filled, there’s something like a 90 percent chance that they’ll be victims of a root canal.

The material used to fill cavities is porous, allowing all sorts of gunk to seep in there, causing further decay and, eventually, a trip to the endodontist, a dentist who specializes in root canals. So you’ve got to brush the teeth that have been treated for cavities just as well, if not better, than the other teeth that haven’t been drilled if you want to avoid a root canal.

The good news about today’s dentistry is that it has changed, for the better, since my youth. The country’s water is pretty much fluoridated, which prevents a lot of dental problems. In addition, kids, if their parents take them to the dentist, receive care that’s advanced significantly over the last 30 years.

My dentist, in fact, tells me that my sons, ages 4 and 3, will very likely never have a cavity in their entire lives. I hope so. But, he warned me, they may take their teeth for granted so much that they’ll have gum surgery. At least that’s what the dental profession is seeing, so far.

On any given day that I have a dentist appointment, I would prefer to see my physician instead, for a check up on my prostate and testicles. Not that I enjoy it, but, somehow, it’s easier to drop my trousers for a few embarrassing, completely undignified minutes than it is to subject my teeth to the phrase, “Open wide. This won’t hurt a bit.”

The problem, however, is that there’s a link between dental health and overall fitness of one’s heart. This first became news to the general public about 10 years ago with the death of a somewhat famous, and rather successful, columnist, named Lewis Grizzard.

Lewis was truly one of the funniest people to ever write a newspaper column. He knew how to turn a phrase like a few others and was right up there with the likes of Dave Barry and Art Buchwald.

Unfortunately, like too many highly talented people, he passed away early. And his doctors were quoted as saying part of Lewis’ heart problems was his dental health. It was rotten.

If you’ve got bad teeth, there’s a good chance you’ll have a bad heart, the experts say. All that stuff that’s in your mouth – it was once reported there are more than 200 different kinds of bacteria living in anyone’s mouth – can affect your cardiovascular system.

That’s why you need to floss and see a dentist for regular check ups. It’s the first line of defense in maintaining overall good health.

About a week ago, it was reported in The Wall Street Journal, a number of insurance companies are covering more dental procedures because, they’ve concluded, they could prevent “a range of expensive medical problems” in the future.

The reason for the advanced coverage, The Journal reported, was due to “the result of an increasing number of studies linking oral health to general health and well being.”

There are now studies, The Journal said, that report links between bacteria around the root of a tooth and pre-term births. There’s also evidence that “the same bacteria in the mouth” can clog arteries, worsening heart disease and stroke risk.” Finally, The Journal said, diabetics find their blood-sugar levels difficult to control if there’s any inflammation in their body.

So if you’re interested in staying fit, work out, eat right, see your physician – and get yourself to the dentist. It just might keep you alive.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The political lessons of President, whoops, sorry, Senator John Kerry

Before going to town on the National Intelligence Estimate, the Democrats might step back, take a deep breath, and think about the man who should be the president of the United States, John Kerry.

2004 was Senator Kerry’s election to lose. The war on terror wasn’t all that popular and the economy then, like today, was troublesome. But lose he did.

He could have said everything he said and still be president today, with one exception. Had he not inferred to America’s military families that their sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters were fighting and dying in the wrong war, he would occupy the Oval Office today.

Instead, he was, willingly or unwillingly, held hostage to the pacifist wing of the Democratic Party, which maintains that all war – even the ones the country is forced to fight – is evil.

There’s nothing good about war, mind you, but sometimes, they need to be fought. And the last thing that any presidential candidate, especially one who’s affiliated with a party whose national security credentials are easy to dismiss, should do is criticize a war effort. Even if they disagree with the war.

Those who have lost a loved one will think their family member died in vain. And that’ll just force them to vote for the opposition.

The Democrats stand a good chance of making some significant gains in the upcoming mid-term elections. The economy is on shaky ground and the execution the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has been less than spectacular.

So instead of becoming all hyped up about the national security report, the Democrats should tell the country that they’ve been the party that’s defended the United States during times of great peril – World Wars I & II, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War come to mind – and that they’ll be just as vigilant, if not more so, if they’re at the helm during the war on terror.

Americans want to be safe. The last thing the voters will do is choose someone they suspect, even the slightest bit, will put the country at risk.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the man who’s sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office. It’s not John Kerry.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Inspired to attack

Let's keep something in mind: The appeasement policies of Neville Chamberlain inspired Adolf Hitler. Chamberlain tried hard to keep Hitler in a bottle and even gave away Austria, thinking it would satisfy him.

As we all know, it didn't. Hitler attacked Poland and then followed up that campaign with one against Western Europe.

So, if anyone tells you that the war in Iraq is only inspiring the terrorists and making the United States more vulnerable to attack, ask them this: What did the United States do, before 9/11, to inspire the terrorists?

If anything, we've done more for Muslims than they've ever done for Christians or, for that matter, Jews. At the direction of President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the United States, and its NATO allies, defended Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo with bombing campaigns over Serbia and other parts of the Balkans.

And, I note, there were no Saudi fighter jets, or any other planes from Muslim and Arab countries, flying sorties against the Serbians. If they hate us, fine. But, at the very least, Arabs and Muslims could do a better job of defending their own kind.

In addition, the United States has provided millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians.

Sometimes a country can do nothing, like Great Britain, and yet still be hated by another country, like Germany of the 1930s, or a terrorist group.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Update on the United States Military

This update: The United States military, reports today's New York Times, because of its combat obligations in Iraq and Afghanistan, wants more help from the National Guard.

While the Army is planning to expand to 42 combat brigades, there's concern, among people in the know, that the military -- including the Marines, Air Force and Navy -- lacks enough manpower to handle another war.

It's not likely that the North Koreans would cross the DMZ but if they did, we would be hard-pressed to stop them.

The United States Census Bureau reports, in its 2000 census, that there are 63 million men between the ages of 18 - 49.

While not everyone in that pool is qualified to serve, it's time for the United States to reinstate the draft, so we have the forces necessary to win in Iraq and Afghanistan. Citizenship means more than just voting and paying taxes. It also means serving the country in time of need.

For the record, your writer is 44 and in pretty good shape. But who knows, I may not be fit for combat.

NATO's Secretary-General, meantime, reports that the organization needs additional forces to defeat the Taliban. NATO has performed well against the enemy. But it needs more troops if it is to succeed in the longrun.

It's time for us to have a debate in this country about victory. Do we want it? Or do we want to hole up on our shores and pretend that the terrorists, whatever their stripe, will just go away. Also, what's our obligation to Iraq and Afghanistan now that we're there?

How the Democrats win the 2006 and 2008 elections

Drip, drip, drip. Do you feel any pain? You shouldn’t. This slow drip gives you freedom, speed and warmth.

What is it?

It’s oil.

It doesn’t really drip into our economy – it floods it. And it’s difficult, if not downright impossible, to get through a day without touching something that was made from oil. It underlies our economy and is powerful enough to undermine it.

Crude oil prices influence our stock markets and play a role determining whether our economy is headed for good times or bad. In addition, because, as President Bush says, we’re addicts, oil influences our foreign policy.

If the United States hasn’t made the world safe for democracy, it’s at least made the world safe for oil, thanks to its military.

The Department of Energy provides these statistics on U.S. oil consumption:

  • The United States is the world’s leading consumer of crude oil at 20 million barrels a day. Worldwide, nearly 84 million barrels of crude oil are consumed daily.
  • We import 10 to 14 million barrels of crude oil every day.
  • We produce about 5 million barrels of crude oil each day.
  • Canada and Mexico are our top two importers of crude oil, followed, in order, by Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Algeria, Iraq, Angola, Russia and the United Kingdom.
  • Our crude oil consumption is expected to increase, by 2030, to nearly 28 million barrels a day. Global consumption is predicted to increase to 118 million barrels a day by 2030.
  • The United States started importing oil to meet its domestic energy needs in 1949.
  • The U.S. consumes nearly 600 million gallons of gasoline and diesel a day.

Each barrel of crude oil produces gasoline, heats homes, fuels jets and ships, and produces electrical power, lubricants, asphalt, road oil and kerosene. Just about anything touched in our daily lives is either composed of oil or is made from a product that uses a derivative of oil.

And, so far, other than the hybrid car and limited uses of nuclear, hydrogen, wind and solar power, there doesn’t appear to be a plan for the United States to wean itself from oil.

The only good news is that we’re not as dependent as our allies for oil from the Middle East. Starting in the 1970s, on the heels of the Yom Kippur War, the United States started diversifying its suppliers. Instead of being solely dependent on the Arabs for oil, we started buying oil from countries in Europe, Latin America and Africa.

The cost of this commodity is staggering. At today’s prices, roughly $60 a barrel, our daily supply of crude oil costs $1.2 billion or about $440 billion a year.

Let’s keep something in mind – that $440 billion is just the cost of the raw material. It doesn’t reflect all of the other costs, including marketing, refining, transportation, employees, which U.S. consumers pay to buy crude oil’s by-products.

So if you’re upset about the price you’re paying to fill ‘er up, then you need to think deeper about this issue. The $2.70 or so a gallon we’re paying for gas, while unsettling, is nothing compared to astounding costs we incur to keep ourselves – and the world – safe for oil.

Prior to the outbreak of the Iraq War, $60 billion was spent annually to keep our Navy in the Persian Gulf, estimates the Brookings Institution. The Navy was keeping the sea lanes safe for shipping oil and keeping Saddam Hussein in check.

Today’s war in Iraq, according to the Congressional Budget Office, is costing U.S. taxpayers, more than $100 billion a year. And while the war isn’t directly attributable to keeping the world safe for oil, it plays a role. Iraq, the Department of Energy reports, is estimated to have oil reserves that are in excess of 100 billion barrels. That’s the third largest supply, after Saudi Arabia and Canada.

Keep in mind that crude oil prices started 2005 at around $40 a barrel and then started to double. The U.S. economy went into shock last year when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita halted drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, one of our primary domestic sources of oil. Crude oil prices shot up to about $70 a barrel; suddenly, in some places, people were paying $4 a gallon for gas.

Two months ago, because of the war between Israel and the terrorist group Hezbollah, crude oil prices touched $80 a barrel, and there was speculation that we’d soon be paying $100 or more. Today, crude oil prices are hovering at $60 a barrel, resulting in lower gasoline prices. The prices dropped because there haven’t been any interruptions in supply and demand is down for petroleum-based products.

And while that might provide everyone with a sense of relief, it shouldn’t. Lower prices usually mean an increase in consumption, which usually results in higher prices; the only thing that might stem this intake is that it’s September – not July or August, when Americans take to the road for vacation.

But even if crude oil prices continue to drop, the United States will remain the world’s largest oil-consuming market; in addition, we’ll continue to have troops overseas so the world remains safe for oil.

President Bush announced this year that the United States needs to bring its addiction to oil to a halt. It’s hard to say how serious he is because the White House has yet to release a plan to cut our oil habit.

I understand why the Republicans, the party of big business, never show up for debates about oil prices.

But where are the Democrats?

Why are they missing in action over an issue that could likely help them seal a victory for The White House and Congress in the next two years?

Environmentalism, until recently, was perceived as a fringe cause. But no more. Americans are recycling left and right. SUV sales are down and people are becoming more familiar with conservation.

President Bush is right: It’s high time we cut our addiction to oil. And the Democrats could play this up by making our oil addiction not an environmental cause – but one that’s about national security.

They could tell the nation, for example, that we need to cut our dependence on oil – big time! – so we can deal with the Middle East from a position of strength, not dependence. Think how the dynamic of our relationship with Saudi Arabia or any other oil-producing nation would be if they knew we didn’t need them.

It would increase our options. We could tell Japan, which buys nearly all of its oil from the Middle East, to start sending its own navy to patrol the Persian Gulf. We would be in a position to significantly reduce our military presence in the Middle East, if not just outright end it. It would also force our friends, whether they’re in Europe or Asia, to start maintaining their own oil security, just as we’ve been doing for them for the last 30 years.

To get everyone on board, the Democrats might start getting closer to big oil companies, like ExxonMobil. Instead of bashing them, they should start proposing legislation that would provide these companies with incentives to find alternative sources that would fuel all of our energy needs. They might also start talking to Detroit, encouraging the Big Three auto companies to produce more and better hybrid cars.

Such a plan could also have some residual benefits. An initiative that begins to reduce the country’s dependence on oil could also affect countries run by dictators. Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s strongman, for example, might not look like the hero he is to some if, suddenly, we weren’t knocking on their door to buy oil. Russia’s Vladimir Putin’s desire to regain some of his country’s old-time influence around the globe, when the country was known as the Soviet Union, might be clipped.

If we do nothing, then this addiction of ours will just continue to grow. If the Democrats fail to take up this cause, then they look no different than the Republicans – a political party, under a different name, that loves the status quo.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Victory over Al-Qaida

Declare victory, says James Fallows in this month’s Atlantic magazine, on the war on terror. Why not? Unlike at World War II’s conclusion, when Americans saw pictures of German and Japanese leaders signing surrender documents, it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever see Osama bin Laden or his henchmen capitulate to the United States or its allies in a formal surrender ceremony.

We’re fighting a rogue enemy that doesn’t play by the rules, which gives the Bush administration freedom to declare victory. And maybe with good reason: Al-Qaida hasn’t struck the United States in more than five years and their organization has been severely damaged.

Still, it’s not quite down and out. Bin Laden, although likely isolated in some remote hideout in either Afghanistan or Pakistan, remains at large. The worst thing the West has to contend with isn’t so much bin Laden’s Al-Qaida but, rather, his licensees in Asia, the Middle East and Europe or those who claim some sort of affiliation, Fallows writes.

While there’s always a possibility of an attack from terrorists, writes Fallows, we’ve achieved a number of victories against Al-Qaida since 9/11, harshly reducing their capabilities. We have killed or captured Al-Qaida’s leaders, wiped out their training camps in Afghanistan, and become smarter about what to look for when they communicate among themselves, travel or attempt to transfer money.

The biggest disturbance lately from Al-Qaida affiliates was in the United Kingdom a month ago, when the government announced that it had foiled a terrorist plan to blow up 10 jet liners headed to the United States. Like the London attacks during the summer of ’05, this one was presumed to have been carried out by Muslims born in the United Kingdom or who had, at the very least, been living in the UK for quite some time, which, needless to say, comes as quite a shock to British citizens.

Unlike their UK counterparts, Fallows writes, Arab and Muslim immigrants to the United States are far different than the “estranged Muslim underclass of much of Europe.” Arabs and Muslims living here are like any “well-assimilated ethnic group” in the United States; in addition, they own businesses and hold college degrees. Finally, second generation American Muslims “are culturally and economically Americanized” while “many European Muslims often develop a sharper sense of alienation.”

And, say what you will about George W. Bush, one of his first actions, shortly after 9/11, was to extend the proverbial hand to American Muslims. He visited mosques and made it a point of telling the country that the war against terror was not a war against Islam. This action alone likely gave American Muslims assurances that they were not about to be jailed like their Japanese-American counterparts during the Second World War.

So, yes, given that we’ll never likely hear or see much from bin Laden, President Bush might as well declare victory against Al-Qaida. Other than issuing a video tape, announcing that they’re not about to give up the fight, there’s not much the terrorist group’s leaders can do to dispute our claim.

And if we’ve truly won a military and intelligence victory over Al-Qaida, then it’s time to initiate the political and economic victory. We need some sort of Marshall Plan for Afghanistan. In addition, American, European and Asian companies need to invest in Afghanistan so it’s no longer a breeding ground for terrorists.

Monday, September 11, 2006

September 11th

I hope everyone cherishes the memories of those who died in those attacks five years ago. And, regardless of where you stand on the war against terrorism, you should salute those who are serving.

Friday, September 08, 2006

President Bush: No need to concern yourself about our war dead

Reinstating the draft, while a long way off from becoming a reality, would make today’s anti-war movement relevant, forcing Americans to realize that there’s a possibility that they or a loved one could wind up being sent to some distant, Middle Eastern battlefield.

The protesters aren’t striking fear in the hearts of President Bush and his top military commanders. Unlike their Vietnam War predecessors, Bush and his commanders have an all-volunteer force at their disposal, not conscripts, and the result is that most Americans are unaware or, worse, apathetic to the plight of our soldiers.

With the exception of Cindy Sheehan, today’s anti-war movement has no recognizable faces or leaders. College campuses, unlike in the late 1960s and early 1970s, are pretty calm, at least when it comes to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is one of the great unintended tragedies of the draft’s demise: A citizenry that is so far removed from its military that it doesn’t care how many troops are deployed, killed or wounded. So long as our civilian lives aren’t too inconvenienced, the fighting hardly merits a trickle of a thought among any of us here at home.

Why do I say this? Take a walk down any street in America and other than the occasional flag hanging from a house or a building, or the bumper sticker that says “Support Our Troops,” you’d never know that our soldiers are in harm’s way.

The other troubling unintended consequence of the draft’s downfall is that it gives President Bush the ability to use our military nearly any way he sees fit – without having to concern himself too much with public opinion. It’s almost as if he has mercenaries at his disposal.

In fact, if there’s any one person who would fight the draft’s reinstatement tooth and nail, it’s likely to be President Bush himself. A conscripted military has the potential to become a political liability, forcing the administration to become accountable to all the families with a son, father or husband in uniform and, possibly, forcing the administration to curtail its actions.

Today’s all-volunteer force allows us to dismiss the war from our daily lives. Because unless you have a loved one serving in either Iraq or Afghanistan, it’s very likely the war is as remote to you as any other event overseas.

And that’s the problem. If we want to win this war, or force the President to end our overseas military operations, then many more Americans need to put their lives at risk; and the only way to do that is through the draft.

The draft would also bring us closer to having a citizen-army. It was this kind of army, made up of Americans from all walks of life, which brought fascism to an end in Europe and Japan and ended slavery in the United States. Whatever your opinion is on the war in Iraq, keep in mind that fascism and slavery were brought to their knees with bullets and bombs – not with economic sanctions or an international peacekeeping force.

As it was last constituted until 1973, the draft, while not exactly egalitarian, required 17-year-old boys to register with their local draft board. A year later, if that 18-year-old man wasn’t in college, wasn’t a family’s lone son, wasn’t in poor physical condition, or wasn’t married, it was very likely that he’d be called up for military service.

Two million men were drafted to fight in Vietnam, writes James Ebert in his book, “The American Infantryman in Vietnam, 1965 – 1972.” In 1965, draftees made up 21 percent of the force deployed against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. By 1970, 70 percent of the combat force had been drafted.

The hardest question to answer about reinstating and implementing the draft is how we ensure that one generation does not unfairly hand off this obligation to another. The best way to avoid the problem is to draft all men between the ages of 18 – 50, regardless of their marital status or whether they’re in college. Only prior military service should prevent a man from being drafted.

Conscripting 50-year-old men comes as close as possible to ensuring that an older generation does not unfairly throw this obligation onto a younger one. And while it might seem unfathomable to see a 50-year-old man in basic training, keep in mind there are many men that age and older who work out regularly. While not every 50-year-old will be fit for combat duty, there’s likely a military job they could handle, given their advanced age.

Of course, reinstating the draft would be highly controversial. It might be met with riots just as it was when Abraham Lincoln and Congress instituted the draft during the Civil War. But it’s the only way to stop the apathy that most Americans suffer from when it comes to being aware of the risks our soldiers face. If would also force President Bush and his commanders to come clean with their plans for the Middle East.

A larger cross-section of the country will be represented overseas in a conscripted military force. That should help us win the wars we’re fighting; and it may just give Iran and North Korea pause. We’d appear to be ready to fight them because we mobilized. And, quite possibly, a conscripted military force just might give the anti-war movement significance.